All those times your mother told you to stand up tall and sit up straight were for good reason.
New research shows the amount of weight on the spine dramatically increases the farther the head leans forward. That poor posture adds more stress to the cervical spine, which can cause early wear, tear and degeneration.
In small doses, poor posture isn’t too damaging. But the time people spend, day in and day out, with their heads tilted forward — reading on a tablet, texting on a smartphone, leaning toward a computer screen, inching toward the steering wheel during traffic — can add up to more than 700 hours per year of excess stress on the cervical spine, according to research by Dr. Kenneth Hansraj, the chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine.
“People are stuck in that forward-type posture,” said Jonathan Rice, a physical therapist at Vancouver Rehabilitation and Therapy Clinic.
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An adult head weighs 10 to 12 pounds in the neutral position. When the head is tilted forward at a 15-degree angle, the weight on the neck jumps to 27 pounds. At a 45-degree angle, the weight on the neck is up to 49 pounds; at 60 degrees, it’s 60 pounds, according to the research.
“It’s basic physics that when you have a weight that’s further from your center of gravity, it weighs more,” said Jim Webster, a physical therapist at Rebound Orthopedic and Neurosurgery, which has offices in Portland and southwest Washington.
A person’s neck is meant to bend forward, and the body has the muscles to support that movement, Webster said. The problem, he said, is when that small amount of stress to the cervical spine adds up to significant stress after many hours of poor posture.
That added stress means more compression of the tissue between each spinal segment, Rice said.
“Eventually, they start to squish flat, and you don’t have the padding between the spinal segments,” he said.
The undue stress on the spine can cause increased wear to the cartilage, which can lead to bone spurs and arthritis. The forward posture also can cause muscle strain, pinched nerves and even headaches, Rice said.
“That normal posture is normal for a reason,” he said.
Normal posture means keeping the head on top of the body: the ears aligned with the shoulders and the shoulder blades retracted. When sitting, keep your head over your shoulders and your shoulders over your hips, Webster said. For those who spend much of their day sitting at a desk, Webster recommends making sure the chair fits your body and has good back support. Keeping the computer screen in a position that doesn’t require leaning forward and the computer mouse close enough that the arm isn’t overstretching to use it can also help promote proper posture, he said.
Webster tells his patients to change their position repeatedly throughout the day — every 30 minutes, change your position for 30 seconds — and reverse the pressures to the spine by stretching in opposite directions.
Rice encourages people to identify which positions are demanding on the body and increase your attention to those postures. Change those postures, if possible, and stay active, Rice said. If that doesn’t help, Rice recommends seeing a specialist.
Being active and strong and taking frequent breaks from demanding activities will help reduce the stress on the spine, but the best remedy is developing patterns that promote health based on the physiology of the neck, Rice said.
“All those things your mom ever told you, she was right — again,” he said.